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Volume 23, Number 3May/June 1972

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Festival at Baalbek

"A dialogue between … the ruins of sculptured stone and the heart of modern man."

Photographed by Robert Azzi

The 4,000 persons packed into the forecourt of the Temple of Jupiter filled the flood-lit ruins with their applause and Ella—the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald—responded. Microphone in hand, gown blowing in the breeze, she looked down at the glittering international audience and said softly, "I don't know... I thought I'd been around, sung a lot, seen most everything... but just look at me now." She swept an expressive hand toward the vast Roman ruins around her. "Tonight, I joined the classics!"

The audience roared its agreement and Ella, with an easy snap of her fingers, swung into her encore.

Ella Fitzgerald is not the first great performer to be awed by the setting of the Baalbek International Festival. Just the first jazz singer. Founded in 1955, this festival of music, dance, and theater held each summer in Roman temples high in Lebanon's fertile Bekaa Valley has, for 16 years, been presenting some of the world's greatest dancers, actors, singers and musicians to ever-growing audiences. The Pittsburgh and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras, the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic (conducted by Herbert von Karajan) have given concerts for up to 2,000 people from the steps of the Temple of Bacchus. The Australian Ballet, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Royal Ballet, with Dame Margot Fonteyn, have danced there, the Royal Ballet twice—once with Rudolf Nureyev. Maurice Bejart presented the world premier of his avant-garde ballet Prometheus there. Inside the temple—in the third and more intimate festival "theater"—London's Old Vic and France's Comedie Francaise have presented plays, and quartets and quintets from Moscow, Stuttgart and Varsovia have offered chamber music.

The festival has featured a recital by renowned pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has sung there, and so have the Amherst Glee Club, Rosalind Elias and hefty Oum Koulsoum, the grande dame of Arabic music, "singing the moon out of the sky" for Arab audiences just as hypnotized by her as Americans are by Ella Fitzgerald.

"In the beginning," says festival president Salwa Es-Said, "we used to have to beg performers to come. We had to explain even where Baalbek was. Now it is almost as difficult for us because we receive so many offers we have a hard time choosing which artists to invite. When she accepted last year, for example, Ella Fitzgerald had little idea of where or what Baalbek was. But this year, when her eye doctor advised her to cut back her schedule, she said, 'One place I'm not going to cut out is Baalbek.' "

Baalbek today is by no means the great city that its history would indicate. Standing at the northern tip of a high, agriculturally rich plateau separating Lebanon and Syria, it is little more than a small, nondescript Arab town. Shortly after the birth of Christ, however, various Roman emperors began to build at Baalbek some of the mightiest temples in the empire. And some of those temples, the work of centuries, survive to this day, relatively intact. The massive Temple of Bacchus, for example, is one of the most perfectly preserved Roman structures in the world, including Rome itself, and the remaining six grand columns of the Temple of Jupiter are the world's largest.

Despite this, Baalbek was still one of the world's lesser known wonders until, in 1955, Zalfa Chamoun, wife of then President of Lebanon Camille Chamoun, gave her active support to a proposal to capitalize on Baalbek's magnificent ruins and perfect summer nights by presenting concerts there. Since then some 400,000 people have swarmed into the now flood-lit ruins to attend concerts, ballets and plays under the stars in what Mrs. Es-Said calls "a dialogue between the past and the present, between the ruins of sculptured stone and the heart of modern man."

Last year alone, an estimated 40,000 attended such varied presentations as Ella, the Amadeus Quartet of England, the 250-member Orchestra and Choruses of the Krakow (Poland) Philharmonic, the Philippine National Ballet, "Bayanihan," the magnificent Bolshoi Ballet, and nine days devoted to local star Sabah and a Lebanese folklore troupe in an original operetta. This year's tentative schedule is equally impressive: Ella, back for a return engagement in July; Lebanese singing star Feyrouz; the Prague Chamber Orchestra; Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 22nd Century; the Spanish harpist Zabalata; and, again, pianist Richter.

Success has forced changes in the festival. Once a relatively simple, if striking production, the festival is now a closely organized operation which provides ample parking, automobile club assistance, a trained corps of volunteer ushers, Red Cross emergency help, and food and beverages at intermissions. The festival committee has even seen to the issuance of commemorative stamps and has its own official symbol, a modern adaptation of a Phoenician design depicting the sun surrounded by four planets—Jupiter included, of course.

To get to Baalbek from Beirut requires an hour and a half of hair-raising driving through Lebanon's mountains, and the ribbon of tail lights on concert nights is almost as colorful as the lighted temples across the flat Bekaa Valley. Audiences enter the temple complex through a dramatic, vaulted Roman passageway 130 yards long, emerging at the base of the 70-foot-high platform of the Temple of Jupiter, surmounted by 65-foot columns—to a fanfare of stirring trumpets announcing curtain time. Elegant ladies in Paris fashions mix easily with girls in hot pants and handfuls of bearded, patched hippies as they move toward their seats on the lawn in front of the broad stone steps leading up to the giant 42-foot portal of the Temple of Bacchus. In the aisles Lebanese debutantes sell handsome souvenir programs, until, as the fanfare plays for the third time, the ancient walls and columns fade into the cool night, the conductor raises his baton, the diva clears her throat, the ballerina steps into the spotlight or Ella, incomparable Ella, joins the classics.

This article appeared on pages 10-19 of the May/June 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1972 images.